By MARALINE KUBIK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Thirteen years ago, screenwriter Dennis Nemec was worried his latest assignment from ABC would kill his career.
Instead, the movie, "God Bless the Child," which exposed the brutality of poverty in America and aired in 1988, received much acclaim and inspired an Ursuline sister to develop a holistic approach to address poverty in Youngstown.
The project, Beatitude House, which has helped more than 150 women and their children, celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.
Nemec, who grew up in Youngstown, just recently learned about the project that "God Bless the Child" inspired. He will give the keynote address at the anniversary dinner July 29 at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish hall, Youngstown.
"What Sister Margaret did -- that was brilliant. She saw the real heart of the problem: stability," Nemec said enthusiastically.
The program: Sister Margaret Sheetz, an Ursuline nun, founded a transitional housing program for single mothers and their children in 1991. Known as A House of Blessing, the program was the start of Beatitude House, which also encompasses job training and educational programs collectively operated by The Potter's Wheel, which was established in 1997.
A House of Blessing operates 16 apartments in Youngstown, four in a converted convent at St. Brendan's Church on the West Side and 12 on the North Side. Potter's Wheel, also based at St. Brendan's, offers a broad range of educational programs from basic education and GED preparation courses to computer training and techniques of interviewing for a job. It also helps women attend college or technical school if they choose. Life skills such as how to resolve conflicts, be a good parent, communicate and budget household finances are addressed, too.
"Most treatments for poverty are Band-Aids," Nemec said. Shelters allow residents to stay only for a few weeks so most of their time is spent looking for another place to live rather than working to improve their situations. As a result, he said, they end up moving from shelter to shelter, and nothing changes.
Beatitude House allows women to live at a House of Blessing for up to two years while they receive counseling and pursue their educations. "Education is one of the keys to breaking out of poverty," explained Teresa Boyce, development director. "We don't want to just stabilize their homes, we want to make them middle class."
Most women and their children live at A House of Blessing for about 18 months before they find jobs and move into their own apartments, she said.
One woman's story: One program participant, a 37-year-old mother of two who doesn't want to be identified, came to Beatitude House in January 2000. "My mom told me about it because I didn't have any place to live," she said. Although she'd been working as a cashier and manager of a fast-food restaurant, she couldn't rent an apartment because she'd defaulted on old student loans and had a bad credit rating. "I never could make enough money to pay the bills, take care of the kids and get the old bills out of default," she lamented.
She'd always wanted to be nurse but, with all of her other responsibilities, was never able to pursue it. "I started with The Potter's Wheel in January 2000," she recalled, and moved into A House of Blessing a month later.
After a score of aptitude tests revealed that her math skills were not up to par, she hit the books hard, mastering the skills she needed in just a few months. Then, with help from her mentors, she applied to Youngstown State University, confident that she could achieve her dream. She started attending classes on a full-time basis last fall and made the dean's list.
Beatitude House helped her find funds for summer tuition, which is not covered by traditional grants for education and books. Financial counseling helped her clean up her credit and because of that, she was recently approved to rent a government-subsidized apartment.
"It's a big support having people tell you that you can do it when you feel like you can't," she said, referring to the encouragement she receives through the Beatitude House programs. Coming to Beatitude House "changed everything for the better."
Looking to the future, she continued, "There will be a lot of opportunities when I graduate."
Having accompanied their mom to class on occasion, her 9- and 12-year-old children are already looking forward to going to college themselves, she added.
More than 20 other program participants are already working full time as RNs, LPNs or in other professions.
Transportation: Once the women obtain jobs, they go into an extended care program where they can address problems they may encounter in making the transition. Those often include finding good child care and reliable transportation. "Transportation is a huge, huge problem," Boyce continued. Many of the women don't have a driver's license or a car; those with a car can rarely depend on it.
"Sixty percent of our women have transportation problems," chimed in Sister Patricia McNicholas, executive director of Beatitude House.
Sister Patricia, former program director of the Potter's Wheel, assumed the executive directorship of Beatitude House after Sister Margaret died of cancer in January.
Continuing Sister Margaret's dream, branches of A House of Blessing and The Potter's Wheel are opening in Warren. The Warren House of Blessing will house seven families by 2002, and The Potter's Wheel will serve 10 to 15 clients at a time beginning this fall.